A Matter of Taste 

Photo by Gretchen Engel

Seven years ago, my husband took a job in a small town. The biggest sacrifice for me was giving up access to various ethnic cuisines. Back in the day, we often went out for Mediterranean, Indian, Thai, or Korean food not to mention Chinese, Japanese, and German.

In our current location, we’re limited to Chinese, Japanese, and Thai. We’re even limited on our choices for Italian. At least living in Arizona, we have a variety of pretty good Mexican restaurants. We also have good pizza, steak, and barbecue.

When we visit my family in Indiana we try to make it to the German restaurant in my hometown. I’ve eaten in several German restaurants across the U.S., and it’s by far my favorite.

This week, my family is on a mini-vacation in Phoenix and Tucson. We have an ever-expanding list of “must eat” locations in these towns. So far we scratched our fish taco itch at Rubio’s and enjoyed The Old Spaghetti Factory. Browned butter and mizithra cheese is in a class by itself especially when paired with clam sauce. If I’d eaten this dish at home, I would have licked my plate. In Tucson, we feasted on a Middle Eastern buffet. The food was delicious. I have little self-control when it comes to dolmades. There was fall off the bone roasted lamb and this ridiculously good combination of pickled vegetables.

On the way to the restaurant, our ten-year-old pointed out an advertisement for Korean barbecue. We introduced him to tabletop cookery a couple of years ago and now he’s as big a fan as I am. Tomorrow night’s dinner is planned as well as lunch. For our midday meal, we’re headed to a place that specializes in Oaxacan Mexican food. It’s a favorite place of my husband’s from when he used to work in Tucson.

What does this have to do with writing? Food and drink are some of my favorite things about characters and sometimes my greatest frustration. A couple of years ago I read three books in a row that made a big deal about characters trying and hating raw oysters. It drove me nuts. They’re one of my all-time favorite food indulgences. Last week I read a book where the character tried and hated escargot. That’s another food treat for me.

Then again, over Christmas vacation, I posted a picture of the chicken foot I ate at a Chinese restaurant in Albuquerque. Of course being in New Mexico, I tried to pass it off as an alien foot from Roswell. So yeah, I’m kind of a stunt eater.

My own characters surprise me. In one series I’m writing, my characters made known their licorice preferences. One likes Red Vines and the red laces, which I’m not even sure they make anymore. The characters also have signature soft drinks. My heroine loves Coca-Cola, the hero Dr. Pepper, and another couple Mountain Dew.

In my non-Earth-based stories, food and drink are a great way to establish various cultures. In one of my works in progress, the heroine is mixed-race. She identifies with her mother’s people but has been raised in her father’s culture. At seventeen, she moves to her mother’s homeland and realizes that she’s at home even though it’s also foreign to her. Immediately, she falls in love with the cuisine.

Food is a great way to gather and separate people by adventurous or timid, old or young, rich or poor, cultured or sheltered.

What is your favorite Ethnic cuisine?


About Gretchen E K Engel

Chemical engineer by day, spec fiction writer by night

12 comments on “A Matter of Taste 

  1. I’m actually very curious to know where you are, that you’re confined to just Chinese, Japanese and Thai. China? Japan or Thailand? I’m guessing China?

  2. Gretchen, I’ve eaten a lot of strange foods in my life, but I’m STILL not a fan of raw oysters or snails… You have have my share of both.

    I love Greek food! It’s fantastic. I also really appreciate and enjoy Indonesian dishes since I was raised there, although anything with soy or msg has gone off the menu. We eat a lot of German/English/American food at our house, but nothing fried. Mostly, we just try to eat healthy.

  3. I like all sorts of ethnic food! Mexican and Italian are closest to my heart (and most often made in my home), what with my Puerto Rican and Italian family heritage. We go out for sushi, Chinese and Thai regularly. Occasionally Russian, Brazilian, and American carnivore (smokehouse BBQ, steakhouse). 😉

    It is fun seeing what kinds of foods and quirks our characters have, isn’t it?

    • Brazilian steak house! I’ve only been once. It was a total splurge. Yum! Overall my favorites are French and Japanese. They’re two countries where I’ve experienced more than just an American restaurant. I was in Japan for a total of nearly 6 months. My experience in France is a lot more limited but hello cheese, pastry, & bread.

    • I love finding out my characters’ food and drink preferences. The same goes for characters in the books I read.

  4. We also moved to a small town a few years ago after living in a metropolitan area. From time to time, I’ll shop for specialty foods when we’re in the city and try to make something authentic. I can never quite get that restaurant quality. 🙂 I think food is important in stories, too. As you mentioned, tastes in food–even hot, spicy, sweet–can give clues to the character and cement their traits in the minds of the readers. great post!

  5. I have a wheat allergy and an adventurous palate, so anything I CAN eat, I’ll usually try, no matter what it is! One of my goals is to eat fried tarantulas, which is apparently a common street food in Cambodia.

    I moved to a more rural area too–one thing my husband and I miss is good sushi and sashimi! We have to drive 45 minutes to the nearest place.

  6. Hah! In Book Four of my fantasy series, the hero is at a fancy dinner party and is offered oysters. He declines, because he doesn’t like them. 😀

    My favorite cuisine not of my own ethnicity is Mexican. Teppanyaki is a close second.

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